PPL: The good, the bad, and the ugly
As K-drama devotees, we are all familiar with the necessary evil/drama-funder known as “PPL,” or product placement. If you’re a non-Korean watcher, you might not realize that each drama actually leads with a disclaimer that it contains product placement. I take this as a kind of “watch at your own risk!” warning label. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself driving a Volvo, eating at Subway, jonesing after the latest Samsung smartphone, and buying expensive Dyson hair dryers.
How often do we pick up on PPL in dramas? I find I have a pretty disparate response. Sometimes I feel so used to regular product placement that it doesn’t phase me anymore — it just glides past me, maybe stuck in my subconscious, maybe flat-out ignored. For instance, 2016’s Descendants of the Sun was criticized for having excessive PPL, yet when I think back to the drama, no major PPL moments have stayed with me (okay, outside of Subway and the self-driving car).
In contrast, sometimes I’ll have a moment of extreme PPL naiveté. I’ll be watching a drama and have a, “Why is she vacuuming so much?” moment — and then a beat later: “Ohhh.” And in the rare case of more covert PPL, am I the only one that’s thought something might be PPL, and then have to prove it by watching the credits? When I was preparing for this article, one thing became certain: when you look for PPL, you will find it. It. Is. Everywhere.
Product placement is sometimes so powerful it can start a consumer revolution, like what happened in the wake of 2013’s You From Another Star. Thanks to a combination of sky-high popularity and megawatt stars Jeon Ji-hyun and Kim Soo-hyun, this drama single-handedly impacted consumer trends. To name just a few instances of the drama’s impact: a chi-maek craze across China, a major boost in Jimmy Choo’s sales, and a complete sell-out of several Iope lipsticks.
The commercial success of product placement aside, one of the most interesting aspects of PPL is the wide range of ways it’s deposited into a script, and handled by the actors. When does PPL succeed, when does it crash and burn, and what are the mechanisms that are commonly used to integrate it (or not) into a storyline? Let’s look at some recent and memorable PPL moments, and investigate.
As a disclaimer, I have little knowledge of the actual business of, or process by which, product advertisements get written into a primetime Korean drama script. From what I understand it’s a fairly complicated tangle of broadcasting regulations around brand names, corporate logos, sponsorship, and of course, money. So, instead of an analysis of the business of product placement advertising, this is more of an analysis of how PPL looks from a viewer’s perspective.
We’re all pretty resigned to the token coffee shop and smartphone PPL, which is (usually) so normalized in K-dramas that we barely notice it. Coffee Bay, Twosome Cafe, Mango Six, Holly’s Coffee, you name it — if there is a scene in the drama requiring a meeting between two characters in a neutral location, chances are it will be at the sponsoring coffee shop’s nearest location. Need to check your text messages, or take a selfie? Maybe you want to consult an app to find an apartment, plan a vacation, or perhaps book some airfare? We fully expect to see the latest Samsung smartphone, or a new app that’s gaining traction.
Likewise, if there’s a heroine, there will be a dressing table. If there’s a dressing table, it will be arrayed with the brand that actress is the spokesperson for. Need to up the ante? Have the heroine go for a makeover, or go shopping for a new lipstick to impress her crush, as in the adorable drama Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju.
In fact, in an entertainment medium where we’ve become pretty accustomed to PPL, what often draws more attention to a product is the black tape slapped on car insignias and the like, highlighting the fact that this product is not being advertised.
Some of the most aggressive PPL encountered in dramaland was during The Great Subway Invasion of 2016 (granted, Subway PPL wasn’t limited to 2016, but this was their blitzkrieg). It literally felt as if they single-handedly funded every drama produced that year, and the product placement reached a farcical level.
The Lonely Shining Goblin, Descendants of the Sun, Doctors, K2 — no drama was without a convenient date, picnic, or take-out order from this omnipresent sandwich place. Do we really believe that Subway is Song Hye-gyo’s choice for a light, healthful lunch? That Lee Sung-kyung regularly wolfs down heroes, or that this is where Ji Chang-wook goes on dates? Not even for a second. But beyond the far-fetched PPL, by far the saddest part of the Subway Invasion is that they seem to have been successful because of it.
Does more money pumped into advertising have to mean obvious, bang-you-over-the-head product placement? Why can’t it mean products that are craftily nestled into the story? With Subway as our prime example, it seems like the former situation is more often the case.
What is it that makes PPL jarring, distracting, and even distasteful for viewers? Although magnitude and repetition are often major components of PPL disasters, one of the worst crimes of PPL is that of being completely non sequitur, and trying to hide like the elephant in the room.
The recent drama Hundred Million Stars From The Sky had some pretty loud PPL moments, which stood out in a drama that was otherwise very carefully crafted. In one scene, star Jung So-min prepares some Maxim Gold coffee for her colleagues. The PPL alarm goes off when you realize the shot is lingering too long on such a tangential moment.
Then, a few episodes later, there’s a similar PPL incident at the workplace, this time with a nutritious granola bar. There was even some dialogue around this one, with Jung So-min telling her co-worker she wouldn’t be able to eat lunch if she had a second one, and then her co-worker suggesting they have two and skip lunch. In their defense, it was handled as well as it could have been, but then in a flash the ad is over, and it’s back to business.
If you have no say in dramatizing some completely non sequitur PPL in your drama, does having a sense of humor about it take the sting away? Park Bo-gum seems to think so. In several PPL moments for Coca Cola’s W Tea in Boyfriend, he’s randomly given a bottle of the fiber-rich digestive tea and we watched as he downs it, label conveniently turned to the camera. At least he’s cheeky about it.
We’ve run through some examples of pretty standard PPL, but there’s also some instances where PPL sinks to an incredible low and works against the very message of the drama. The recent My ID is Gangnam Beauty, despite being a lot of fun, suffered from this. The drama did its best to remind us that beauty is only skin deep, and its exploration of beauty standards and societal pressure was very strong in moments.
Then they’d chuck in some PPL and ruin everything they had built: the heroine (played by Im Soo-hyang) and her bestie (played by Min Do-hee) would drink some W Tea while saying how it helps them maintain their weight, how great it is when their fridge is full of it, and so on.
To make matters worse, the antagonist (played by Jo Woo-ri) is secretly battling bulimia and frequently shown taking diet pills when she’s upset or feels she has gained an ounce or two. The packaging is disturbingly cute, and we linger on them often enough and long enough to know they are PPL. Granted, she’s the baddie and maybe we shouldn’t be copying her behaviors, but in both cases the Gangnam PPL tells a story that directly conflicts with the drama’s message.
There’s PPL that interrupts, distracts, and takes away from the moral of the story. But is there PPL that’s actually embedded in a way that fits into the plot, or at least attempts to? Thankfully, yes.
My ID is Gangnam Beauty had a lot of unfortunate product placement, but it also had some fairly decent plot-driven PPL for Atelier Cologne. Our heroine dreams of becoming a perfumer and wears scents from Atelier. She’s both part of the company’s internship program and enjoys a mentee-mentor relationship with the company’s CEO. To our heroine, scent is unseen beauty — beauty that can’t be judged by its appearance, weight, V-line, S-line, or anything else. So, the Atelier Cologne PPL in this drama fits the theme well enough to receive a PPL hall pass.
Another instance of relatively adept PPL was found in 2017’s Tomorrow With You. In this drama, Lee Je-hoon is a time-traveling hero who regularly brings products from the future back to the present day — instant ramen that hasn’t been released yet, futuristic robot vacuums, you name it.
This habit eventually blows his cover (as it should, since this is a major time travel no-no), but not without some PPL first. For example, his wife (played by Shin Min-ah) is fascinated by the robot vacuum and treats it like a pet. And there you have it: endless opportunities for PPL, and a pretty good story-driven excuse to draw attention to these products.
Boyfriend, after several painful PPL moments, also had an instance of PPL that was integrated into the storyline — and it came with its own mini meta moment, too. Park Bo-gum goes shopping for his CEO, and what does he buy but a lovely Sulwhasoo lipstick. In case you don’t keep up with Amore Pacific brand family spokespersons (and I’m not sure why I do), Song Hye-gyo was the face of Laneige for years, until her marriage. Following her marriage, she started to represent top-tier brand Sulwhasoo and the Laneige line fell to Lee Sung-kyung. So, when Park Bo-gum gives her the Sulwhasoo lipstick and tells her she is prettier than the model… Well, I got a chuckle out of it, anyway.
While you can build up a PPL tolerance the same way you can become numb to the sirens of a fire station when you live nearby, there will always be those moments of PPL that are hard to ignore. Sometimes they even threaten to disrupt the pace and integrity of a drama.
Since PPL is here to stay, finding a way to make it a part of the entertainment seems the best coping mechanism. One way to do that is with meta and self-reference — from the lipstick moment mentioned above. A more satirical instance can be seen in a recent episode of the currently airing Memories of the Alhambra. They poked fun at PPL and corporate sponsorships when the corporation run by Hyun Bin’s character figured out a way to incentivize video game players to eat at Subway, and worked it into the gameplay.
Another way to cope with a PPL overdose is to turn the tables on it. Instead of looking at it as a way to sell products to hypnotized consumers, what if we looked at it as a mechanism for bringing stories to life? This is when I have the most fun with — and the greatest tolerance for PPL. For instance, I can’t be the only one who’s amused every time she sees a Hyundai Velostar on the road. It is, and always will be, the Lee Min-ho-mobile from City Hunter.
The idea of pulling drama products and trends into real life is where shows like You From Another Star succeeded on a grand scale with the Cheon Song-yi phenomenon. But there can be smaller instances too. I don’t think the bright pink Mamison rubber gloves that appear in every K-drama kitchen have ever been official PPL, but for me, they’re a way I can bring a smile to something as ordinary as washing my dishes.
This twist on PPL goes one step beyond the consumerism that product placement is all about. Instead, it’s about enjoying the spillover from a fictional world. You don’t have to splurge on a Dyson Supersonic hair dryer, don a thousand-dollar parka, or chug some W Tea to enjoy this PPL benefit. The world of the story is always there for the taking, and the smile it puts on your face doesn’t have a price tag.